Off and Winging: How time flies

July 1, 1980

Loafing along alone aloft in a somewhat sullen mood, heading homewards from Cobleskill, New York, where the local fish population apparently had gone on a mass hunger strike and refused to bite the bullet or anything else, the spirits of a disgusted disciple of Izaak Walton revived when he noticed that, according to the New York sectional on his lap, just across the Hudson from the city with the vaguely familiar name lay the Town of Rhinebeck, served by two airports, one paved, one not. Having heard of Cole Palm's collection of old airplanes at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, the pilot figured that, as long as he was in the neighborhood, he might as well drop in and see the museum, so the weekend jaunt would not be a total loss.

After 10 minutes of orbiting the area at the dizzy altitude of 1,000 feet, without eyeballing the alleged airfield pinpointed by the magic of modern electronics, the day was saved when he espied a set of golden wings between him and the woods below, a sure clue that a landing was in the offing. Hauling back on the throttle, he dropped the gear and flaps and spiraled down to follow the leader, trusting that the leader knew what he was doing. When he got a close look at the black fuselage of the biplane ahead, the pilot sat up and did a startled double take. Unless his eyes were playing tricks, he was being led to a landing by a Pitcairn Mailwing, a sister ship to the previous aviation artifact that leads the flight of airplanes across the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. If so, it had to be half a century old!

Then, as when an out-of-focus picture on a projection screen suddenly pops into sharpness, he saw the airfield ahead and for the next few seconds was extremely busy putting the Wander Bird Too down on a narrow, sway-backed runway with tall trees at each end and an array of ancient airplanes lined up wing-to-wing just off to the side. While taxiing in to an open parking space in front of what looked like a Bavarian fort, he decided that, henceforth, he would land at nearby Sky Park and take the shuttle bus.

As the Cherokee's prop twitched to a stop, the next airplane to land was a pusher model biplane that resembled a huge box kite with a motorcycle sidecar suspended between the wings, quickly recognized as an early, World War I vintage combat airplane that had to be 15 years older than the Pitcairn. And across the field, against a backdrop of sandbagged revetments, antiaircraft machine gun emplacements and structures (including hangars that bore the original logos of Wright, Curtiss and Bleriot), was a lineup of airplanes out of the past: The guy almost hurt himself in the rush to get out and see them up close.

Old Rhinebeck museum? Not quite. None of those ancient aircraft were exhibited under bell jars or behind barbed wire. Separated from the visiting public only by a loose rope barrier or a low snow fence, with each airplane's name, date of manufacture and performance, figures displayed on placards, all, the airplanes are in full flying status, so that every day of the week people can see and hear what they sound like in flight. And they are serviced right there, out in the open.

The airplane degenerate strolled around, examining engines with such exotic names as Gnome and LeRhone and Hisso and OX-5 and peering into cockpits and examining wings and wires and struts, moved by the experience of actually being next to planes he only had read about.. Unlike most historic displays, the feeling was more like being at a picnic or a clambake. The place was crowded, indicating the affection of the public for aviation.

Reading the dates of manufacture on some of the signs started thoughts skipping across his mind like stones on a placid pond, as everything began to fit into a time frame.

Any schoolboy knows that the Wright Brothers made the first successful, controllable, powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and let the genie out of the bottle. But we all tend to put the date of their great invention into a pigeonhole of our minds, along with Columbus discovering America, the Battle of Hastings and Washington at Valley Forge. We don't realize how recent it was.

For example, the airplane that followed the Wander Bird Too in to land was built in 1914, 11 years after that First Flight. By, 1918, the Spads, Nieuports, Fokkers and de Havillands regularly locked in air combat over the Western Front, 14 years after the Wrights' success. The JN series, which began at the Curtiss werke in 1914 and was to be the primary air trainer for the U.S. Army Air Corps in WWI as the JN-4 and JN-5 "Jenny," was sold as war surplus after the war. It became the steed of the barnstormers during the first part of the jazz age of flappers, bootleg gin and the rise of the gangsters, still in our minds because of books and motion pictures of the era.

There were no regulations of any sort then affecting aviation—no pilot exams, no pilot licenses, nor aircraft certification or inspection. The only airways were the routes of the Post Office Department airmail pilots. The first regulations did not come until the Air Commerce Act of 1926, only a year before the Mailwing came into being in aviation's twenty-third year. The Civil Aeronautics Act, which created the Civil Aeronautics Authority, came in 1938, a year after Walter Beech's famous Twin Beech and the Staggerwing, when we were 35 years into the air age. The Federal Aviation Administration came 20 years later, after the use of the omnidirectional ground-based navigation system had made personal cross-country flying as simple as following a needle on the instrument panel, just before the sixtieth anniversary of flight. In the meantime, we had gone through World War II, the war of the airplane; which seems like yesterday.

Coincidentally, as the philosopher was wrapped in his thoughts, the familiar throaty hum of a Rolls-Royce Merlin drew his attention upwards, as a sleek, silvery, P-51 sliced the sky, one of the most beautiful and familiar airplanes of our time, a modern. airplane, guaranteed to draw a crowd of admirers wherever it appears.

As it purred past, the thought came that it was designed in 1940, just before the mid-point of aviation history. To put it another way: when Dutch Kindelberger & Company were inventing the P-5l, the Wright Brothers' experiments were not as far back in time to him, as the P-51 design is to us, today.

A few hours later, off and winging at 1,500 feet down the broad Hudson River, past Bear Mountain and West Point and the spires of Manhattan, then skirring across the Lower Bay to Sandy Hook and down the Jersey shoreline to home, the guy couldn't help pondering his experience. In a bit more than an hour, he had flown 170 miles in his own private lightplane, as easily as if driving his own car. And he thought about how young aviation really is, and how, as it is getting older, it is getting better.

Frank Kingston Smith, AOPA 124393, is a multi-engine instrument pilot, reformed lawyer and the original Week-end Pilot.